Joy When the Job’s a Perfect Fit

Still buoyant despite travails, superintendents describe what satisfies them most by Patti Ghezzi

First there were the “Fire Judith Johnson” headlines on a blog run by a critic of the Peekskill, N.Y., school superintendent. Then, another claimed Johnson had used tax dollars to pay someone to wash her car on a daily basis.

Foes of Johnson attacked her with a voracity that stung the veteran educator. She defended herself through a “Fact vs. Rumor” feature on the school district’s website. And she kept doing what she believed needed to be done in the 3,000-student school district, even if it meant tearing down an old school building laden with memories. That action did not improve her standing with her critics, whom she says didn’t want their tax dollars funding a new school building for children from lower-income families.

“It’s the classic class struggle,” says Johnson, a member of the AASA Executive Committee. “What you’re up against all the time is resistance to change.”

She reminded herself that such criticism comes with the public leadership role and steeled herself against the harsh words. “It’s painful at times,” she says. “No one wants to be attacked.”

Despite the pain, Johnson has never lost her passion for the job of superintendent. Not only did she weather the storm, she has remained upbeat about her career choice.

In a letter to her staff as the first day of school approached last fall, she reminded them they do the most important work in America. “You don’t enter this field for anything other than this noble purpose,” says Johnson, Peekskill’s superintendent for eight years following jobs as a guidance counselor, a school administrator and a deputy secretary of education in the Clinton administration.

Johnson counters the negative aspects of her job with a joy that comes in being a part of an education system that provides a ticket out of poverty for so many students. “We see youngsters who lack hope because it’s never been instilled. … Hope isn’t a word for them,” she says. “Where else do we go to rebuild hope if not public education?”

Johnson, who grew up in a poor family and drew inspiration from her teachers, gets immeasurable satisfaction in seeing many graduates become the first in their family to go to college. “I’ve seen many, many successes,” she says. “If people feel there is a purpose to their lives, we’ve done our jobs.”

New York’s State Council of School Superintendents named Johnson its 2008 Superintendent of the Year, but hers isn’t a job you stay in for the awards. When asked how it felt to go from working at the national policy level to leading a small district through its day-to-day triumphs and travails, Johnson told her state association colleagues she likes to be hands-on, saying, “You can touch it, you can feel it, you can see the results of your work.”

Combining Job With Passion by Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana

Imagine a job where you wake up each morning knowing today you might forever change someone’s life for the better. This is the power of education, and this is why I became a superintendent. I want to make a difference in the world, and I know no better way to improve the future than by opening doors of opportunity for young people. I believe being a superintendent is not just a job, but a calling.

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A Happy Lot
The superintendency has a reputation as a thankless occupation, one so difficult search firms sometimes have a hard time drumming up applicants for challenging school districts. It’s not hard to see why many educators say they would never aspire to the top post: more intense news media scrutiny, harsh and incessant community bloggers, constricting federal mandates, unpredictable local board politics and decreasing opportunities for direct contact with students and hands-on involvement in instructional matters.

It’s a 24-hour job with expectations that often seem unreasonable, especially to those who have committed their lives to the education leadership field. Taxpayers may decry the six-figure salaries, but CEOs in the private sector earn far more without having to contend with community loudmouths who wage harangues over their pay levels and perks.

Yet for all the stress, the bad headlines and the aggravation, superintendents are a happy lot, a fact that may take people outside the field by surprise. A national survey in 2005 published by AASA discovered most school district leaders love what they do and have no regrets about their choice of profession.

“Interestingly, we found that the vast majority of superintendents are happy in their job, would recommend it to others, feel that they have a good relationship with their board and report that their tenure is much more stable than the media would imply,” writes Paul D. Houston, the association’s former executive director, in the foreword to the report, “The State of the American School Superintendency.”

In the survey of 1,338 superintendents, more than half described themselves as “very satisfied,” and about 48 percent listed their job as “very rewarding.” Only 16 percent said they would choose a different profession if they could have a do-over. Confidence was not a problem, either. More than 95 percent thought themselves to be “very effective” or “effective” in running their operations.

Terre Davis, a former superintendent turned professional search consultant, said satisfied superintendents tend to work in communities that fit their personalities and career goals. In districts with long histories of dysfunction, such as Detroit, the number of candidates with a real chance of success may be small. But other districts have an easy time finding candidates because their community is desirable, Davis says. Her firm, TD & Associates, sometimes gets as many as 50 applicants for a single position.

Superintendents can increase their chances of feeling fulfilled by applying for positions in communities they can see themselves living in and being a part of. “It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life,” Davis says. “If you don’t want to live in a rural area, don’t apply. If you don’t want be in an urban area, don’t apply.”

Many superintendents are not just fulfilled by their jobs, they’re downright buoyant. Where does that caffeinated glow come from?

Supportive Boards
Richard Strahorn, in his 23rd year as a superintendent, admits it’s a career that may appear miserable to those looking in from the outside. Still, he looks forward to the start of each new school year.

“I just enjoy the job,” he says. “I know that may be suicidal, but I have never reached a plateau where I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Now head of the 7,600-student Campbell County School District 1 in Gillette, Wyo., Strahorn says he finds joy in seeing the education process work, even when he disagrees with “heavy-handed” mandates of No Child Left Behind. “I like to get out and achieve,” he says, undaunted by the fact that six of his 20 schools didn’t make adequate yearly progress last year. “We will come up with solutions.”

David R. Schuler, a former high school social studies teacher now in his 10th year as a superintendent, currently leading Township High School District 214 in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, says he can’t see himself doing anything else.

“What other vocation do you get to create the future society?” he says. “What more do you need for inspiration than that?”

Schuler loves his job so much he keeps six polo shirts in his car at all times — one for each traditional high school in his school district. He attends at least three football games on Friday nights during the fall season and changes his shirt for each one.

He previously led a school district with declining enrollment, a position he describes as more draining. “Who wants to close a school?” he says. Today, he’s in a district that’s stable, with about 12,400 students. His local board is supportive, and his parents are enthusiastic. And in what may be the ultimate prize, Schuler works in a district that sent its Title I money back to the state rather than comply with No Child Left Behind.

“That way we can focus on what’s important — student achievement,” he says. “Our scores are off the charts.”

When roadblocks come up that can’t be overcome by a board vote, Schuler says he keeps his eye on the big picture. He reviews the goals for the year and thinks about how to best provide the resources to achieve them. He also reflects on memorable moments such as the time a student seriously injured in a car crash wanted to walk across the stage at high school graduation to accept his diploma, a goal that appeared unrealistic. When the student succeeded, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” recalls Schuler, who got to hand the young man his diploma.

School Visits
Superintendents, without fail, say they are in their line of work to support kids, the ones who love learning so much they make the job easy and the ones who resist education with all their might. Superintendents believe in their ability to change schools for the better and, by doing that, improve the lives of children. Classroom teachers tend to say the same thing, but the superintendent sacrifices time in the classroom for the chance to make changes on a bigger stage. Superintendents find satisfaction in seeing a school come off their state’s “needs improvement” list after years of hard work or in observing a classroom where a new curriculum has been successfully launched.

Yet with results so hard to measure, district leaders can’t stay in the game year after year solely driven by incremental gains on standardized tests. Most acknowledge they take pride in their ability to lead under such trying circumstances. They like being the ship’s captain, especially when the water is choppy.

“I like being in charge,” says Lois Berlin, head of the 1,900-student Falls Church City Public Schools in Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. “I’ve been in the assistant role. … I always had to go to someone else to get the final word.”

Long ago, Berlin was miserable working as a social sciences researcher for a think tank when she visited her sister, who was teaching special-needs students at a residential school in Scotland. Inspired by what she observed, she started her career in special education and stayed in the classroom for 15 years. She got itchy and moved into administration, first as an assistant principal with a “fabulous principal mentor.” After 11 years as principal, she moved to the Alexandria, Va., district as assistant superintendent. When the top position opened up in the high-performing Falls Church district, she couldn’t resist applying.

Now in her fourth year, she is excited to be putting the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program in her elementary school and building a new school. The down economy has meant less money coming in and more belt-tightening, but when she gets aggravated, she turns to a familiar therapy.

“I grab my purse, get in my car and go to a school,” she says. “I talk to kids and teachers. … Even the most challenging students have pearls of wisdom to share.”

Berlin says her years of working with special-needs students prepared her for her role as superintendent by giving her the range of life experiences she needed to appreciate the highs and lows in the top spot.

A Job CEOs Can’t Handle
Like Berlin, Frank R. Petruzielo was born to be in charge. Now superintendent of the 37,400-student Cherokee County system in suburban Atlanta, he could have retired nine years ago, after leading the sprawling Broward County schools in south Florida for five years. Before that, he was superintendent of Houston Independent School District, Texas’s largest district.

Instead of retiring, Petruzielo took over a school system known at the time for its dysfunctional board of education. He has no plans to leave. He jokes that his wife also has no plans for him to retire. “I’d probably reorganize all the dishes in the dishwasher,” he says. “I’d rather hang on to the most exciting, demanding and complex job on the planet.”

Petruzielo, always known as an outspoken public official, has no fear of the news media and speaks freely with reporters. He has had several clashes with his now-stable board, though he is unfazed by confrontation and at times seems energized by it. “You have to be prepared to go toe to toe with people who don’t have the best interests of the kids at heart,” Petruzielo says, adding that he enjoys his job even more after 40 years in education because he has nothing to prove and nothing to lose.

He says he spends half his time solving complex problems and the other half of his time trying to enact change, a combination that keeps him intellectually engaged.

“In what other job do you have to meet in public and try to balance a budget when nobody wants to give you any money?” he says. “I get satisfaction in knowing I excel in a job most CEOs in the private sector could not do.”

Though Petruzielo still gets a kick out of handing out diplomas, it’s not where he finds the joy. “It’s knowing the recommendations you make at school board meetings are making education better,” he says, adding that his mantra of “I did it my way” has served him well over the years.

Over and over, happy superintendents cite happy board relations as a driving force, enabling them to put their vision into action.

“It’s Surreal”
Gil Mendoza, a longtime central-office administrator, wanted a superintendent’s position, but he was selective in where he applied and went three years without sending his resume anywhere. He finally landed at the 8,100-student Sumner School District in Washington state, after assuring the school board he wasn’t using the small district as a stepping stone.

Mendoza, who is passionate about handball as well as education, credits his military background and his Jesuit education with preparing him for what he describes as the ultimate leadership opportunity. “As a superintendent, while you are a servant, you are the leader.”

He faced a challenge in following a revered superintendent who retired after 22 years. When people asked him how he compared with his predecessor, he joked that “he’s taller, I’m younger, we’re both balding and we both care about kids.”

Now in his second year, he says he gets a thrill out of “facilitating the talent that lies within the district.” He also loves being able to take all the skills he has acquired throughout his career and use those skills to address whatever issue is on the table at a board meeting.

Mendoza loves the job even more than he anticipated he would. “It’s surreal,” he says. “I still pinch myself and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m the superintendent.’”

Being in a high-profile position has prompted Mendoza to think about how he acts in public, which he thinks has made him a better person. He plans to savor his time in the top spot for a long time.

“You want to see your influence,” he says. “If you really believe you’re serving a bigger purpose, it’s exhilarating.”

Big Satisfaction
Kirk J. Miller also finds happiness as superintendent in a smaller district. Although it’s the third-largest district in Montana, Bozeman Public Schools has just 5,500 students. Miller taught for nine years and was a high school principal before moving to his first superintendency in the Cascade, Mont., district, which housed all its children in kindergarten through high school in a single schoolhouse.

“As I learned each part, I felt I could make a larger difference,” he says. As a superintendent, he learned about operations and facilities as well as instructional approaches. He spent three years in Cascade, then went on to the top post in Havre, another small district before bringing his “passion for strategic planning” to Bozeman in 2007.

Now in his second year in Bozeman, he’s working on the launch of a new long-range plan while overseeing $80 million worth of building projects and says he couldn’t be happier. “It’s about the relationship built with the team that’s delivering services,” he says.
Miller’s love of planning keeps him always looking ahead to the next school year. “It’s the planning you do in the summer that builds the excitement,” he says. “I’m energized.”

Miller doesn’t think his job or his motivation to do it is any different than if he led a larger district. “Whether you have 200,000 students or 2,000, it’s the same tools at both levels,” says Miller, who in his early 40s served a term as chair of the Montana State Board of Education.

Though many people hold the perception that the superintendent’s job is easier and more enjoyable in a smaller district, the AASA study found high levels of satisfaction among superintendents in small, medium and large districts. Superintendents in large districts, often portrayed as professional fall guys, not only reported high levels of job satisfaction, but they are more likely than leaders of small districts to believe they are doing a good job.

Cold in Michigan
Peter C. Gorman, superintendent of the 135,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, oversees 175 schools and visits 100 of them each year. He wishes he could visit them all, but he says such a goal wouldn’t be practical.

Still, he wouldn’t trade what he considers his dream job. “I have never had a day when I didn’t want to come to work,” he says. “I think I have personally drawn a connection between what I do and making kids’ lives better.”

As a large-system superintendent, he has direct impact on teachers, who in turn have an impact on kids. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “Sure, you have challenges and battles, but I don’t toss and turn over those things. I use those things as motivation.”

He says he likes being pushed because it makes him stronger. “It’s like getting physically fit, it gets accomplished through hard work.”

Gorman was a teacher in the 1980s and moved through the ranks of school district administration, working as a chief operating officer in Florida, a job his M.B.A. prepared him for. But he wasn’t satisfied stopping at the No. 2 post. He wanted to be in charge. “From the start, I wanted to be in administration,” he says. “This has been a target my whole life.”

He got his chance two years ago in Charlotte, where re-instilling faith in the public school system after a crushing defeat on a bond referendum was one of many challenges. The district has experienced overwhelming growth. Gorman opened six schools this year and will open another six next year. The achievement gap between those who live in poverty and those who don’t is wider than anyone finds acceptable.

Gorman is too busy putting the best teachers in the schools that need the most improvement to lament the inherent challenges of trying to educate kids from so many different backgrounds.

“I grew up in Michigan,” he says. “It’s cold. There’s no reason to complain. Everyone is cold. You just deal with that.”

He has turned down jobs in the private sector because he believes they wouldn’t be as rewarding.

“It’s an honor that the parents trust me with their most precious gift,” he says. “It’s a nifty way to make a living.”

Patti Ghezzi is a freelance education writer in Avondale Estates, Ga. E-mail: pattighezzi@hotmail.com

Missing the ‘Joy and Fun’ of the Superintendency by MARK A. EDWARDS

In 2004, after serving 12 years as a superintendent in two Virginia school systems, I left to become a dean of education at the University of North Alabama. I truly thought my superintendent days were over.

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